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Thursday, April 4, 2019 12:09 am

Journalism tries to adapt

Free news services take over where newspapers left off

 

At one point in time, the newspaper business was seen as a “cash cow,” says Jon Whitney, Illinois Press Foundation board member and publisher of Carroll County Review. But there’s been a sharp decline in print advertising revenue since 2006, when it peaked at $49.3 billion, according to a 2018 report from Pew Research. By 2016, print media advertising revenue had declined to $18.3 billion, less than half of what it had been generating just a decade earlier.

The time of locally owned newspapers is almost a thing of the past with most publications now part of chains with corporate owners who care primarily about the bottom line.

The revenue concerns at the top of media corporations have trickled down to those working in skeleton newsrooms across the country, where sources in this story have seen their colleagues and friends lose jobs due to layoffs, leaving them to wonder if they would be next.

Those in the industry realize that news reporting is “a thankless job,” said Jeff Rogers, interim bureau chief of Capitol News Illinois and director of the Illinois Press Foundation.

The future of journalism remains uncertain, even to its practitioners. Some reporters resign themselves to other professions, like spokespeople or public relations, in an attempt to save themselves from an industry that began to heavily reduce its work force in 2007.

John Patterson, spokesman for Illinois Senate president John Cullerton, was the senior state government editor for the Daily Herald when he resigned in 2011. While he was never laid off, he watched as the number of Statehouse reporters declined from when he first arrived in 1996.

 “You could kind of see the handwriting on the wall for where things were going,” Patterson said.

No reporter goes into journalism to amass wealth. The days are long, it’s impossible to please the entire audience and reporters constantly need to see through the spin to do the job correctly.

“We’re not special people, but we have a special responsibility,” said Chris Krug, publisher of Illinois News Network.  “It’s a very challenging, frustrating line of work a lot of people don’t understand. It might take someone three minutes to read a story but it’ll take a writer three days to write.”

Reporters from Capitol News Illinois in the press room of the Statehouse with Jeff Rogers (second from right), CNI's interm bureau chief

Print journalism is evolving, but journalism itself is also facing the challenge of overcoming the increased use of news bots that proliferate inaccurate or fabricated news stories to the masses one social media share at a time. There have also been technological advances that give hoaxers the ability to alter images and videos that often leave news consumers confused about the authenticity of stories.

Despite the changes, those involved in news reporting continue to try to keep voters informed about the policies state legislators enact. Journalists also dig into the states’ bureaucracies to ensure they’re efficient, ethical institutions and continue to serve the people, not a few corrupt politicians and their friends.

“They tend to cut corners and do shady things when people aren’t looking,” said Charlie Wheeler, former Chicago Sun-Times Statehouse bureau chief and a member of the Illinois Press Foundation.  “Plus, the general public doesn’t know what’s happening.”

As news organizations shrink in size and reporters are required to take on more roles while still producing the same amount of content as before their co-workers were laid off, some forward-thinking editors and reporters have tried to continue serving readers through different means.


Creative methods pay off

Legislative reporters have been on the decline since 2007 due to layoffs and reporters leaving the industry for other positions, often in public relations or press secretary work like Patterson. Yet, what’s occurring in the Illinois’ legislative press corps isn’t unique.

Reporters and editors around the country have been getting in touch with their creative side to continue to provide what they see as a necessity: quality state government news.

One such example is a program offered by the University of Kansas that was reintroduced eight years ago and has continued since.

“You can go into the media room and count on one hand the number of reporters covering the Statehouse in Kansas,” said Scott Reinardry, associate dean at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Reinardy teaches a class that puts undergraduate students to work covering the legislature. His students aren’t writing for the school paper; their work gets published through the KU Wire Service, which is coordinated through the Kansas Press Association’s 225 member newspapers throughout the state.

Illinois News Network publisher Chris Krug.
Courtesy of the Franklin Center
Undergraduates who sign up for the advanced media course are on deadline for three stories every two weeks. Reinardy said most of the students are green when they enter the course, but they walk away from the experience understanding the importance of state government reporting.

“They’re looking at some of the stories that are generally being ignored by the Associated Press and larger dailies in the state,” Reinardy said. “We’re not looking to step on people’s toes; we’re here to help with the content.”

Peter Hancock, a reporter with Capitol News Illinois, is a former Kansas legislative reporter who watched the press corps decline from 20 full-time reporters to about half of that by time he left to join Illinois Statehouse reporters.  He said when the locally owned paper he worked for was acquired by a chain he thought he’d be the first to be laid off.

University of Illinois Springfield offers a master’s level Public Affairs Reporting program, which is similar to University of Kansas’ advanced media undergraduate course. The UIS program has been in existence since 1972 but recently has needed to reduce the number of students admitted to the program due to the declining number of Statehouse bureaus.

Wheeler, who now serves as the PAR adviser since retiring from the Chicago Sun-Times in August of 1993, said the program is committed to placing students in a Statehouse reporting internship for real-world experience.

“The program could be larger if we had internships to place students at, so I’m always constrained on who I’m going to offer,” Wheeler said.

Other Capitol bureaus have tried different tactics. Organizations in Oregon collaborated to form the Oregon Capital Bureau and something similar has occurred in Pennsylvania with the creation of a nonprofit called Spotlight PA that serves as a statewide investigative newsroom. Realizing the need to replenish state government correspondents, reporters and editors who are employed by three different media organizations in both states now work together. The collaboration has allowed reporters to focus on more in-depth reporting since they’re no longer chasing the same stories as their colleagues who work for a different organization.

“The collaboration is one thing that’s going to help the newspaper to survive,” said Rogers. “The nonprofit model also helps.”

Illinois’ die-hard news enthusiasts are joining those around the country who are attempting to keep journalism alive but adapting to a new business model.


Filling the gaps in Illinois

While Illinois remains in the top 10 states with the most full-time Statehouse reporters when compared to the rest of the nation, according to a July 2014 study from the Pew Research Center, the Illinois press corps has been steadily decreasing since 2007.

In the late 1980s, there were 44 full-time Statehouse reporters. That number remained fairly consistent through the 1990s until the mid-2000s when bureaus began to leave state government reporting behind.

During the 2009-2010 legislative session the number of full-time Statehouse reporters dipped to 31. During the last legislative session, there were just 20.

“Even at the height of financial viability of newspapers … we still weren’t covering Statehouse or statewide news with the priority you would think,” said Krug, president of the Franklin Center and publisher of Illinois News Network.

The Illinois Press Foundation and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, both nonprofit groups, have launched news services that those who are involved with the operation of news dissemination hope will fill a hole that’s been left by the declining numbers of reporters in the Statehouse.

Krug said Illinois News Network, which was acquired by the conservative think tank Illinois Policy Institute in 2017, tries to cover news across the state, border to border. He said the content the organization produces, which is available online, is most popular in the collar counties, central and southern Illinois.

 “We don’t put our stories behind a pay wall, and we don’t make our stories only available to legacy media, though they certainly use it,” Krug said. While newspapers are allowed to use Illinois News Network content at no charge, the articles are also made available to individuals through the website, no sign-in or subscription required.

Charlie Wheeler III surrounded by years of documents.
Photo by Jeff Rogers

Krug acknowledges that Illinois News Network has been characterized as being right-leaning because of its connection to the Illinois Policy Institute, but he said he accepted his job as publisher as long as he was able to maintain autonomy over the news operation. He said part of his job requires him to find donors to contribute to the platform, although he declined to disclose the budget for the current fiscal year. The organization has five employees, according to Illinois News Network’s staff webpage.

Capitol News Illinois, a project being advanced by the Illinois Press Foundation, launched in January and has received funding from the foundation, as well as the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, to keep the operation going for the next three years. However, Rogers declined to say how much funding has been provided to keep the news service running over the next three years.

“It’s our obligation (as reporters) to observe, and when we see something that’s not appropriate, it’s our job to let the public know about it,” Wheeler said. “That’s the point of the First Amendment.”

Capitol News Illinois was an idea that Wheeler had for a few years but wasn’t able to put into practice until recently. However, the content produced is only made available for publication to Illinois Press Association’s member papers.

Rogers, Capitol News Illinois’ interim bureau chief, said the wire service already has a strong circulation in the couple of months since it launched, and he’s pleased with the content and quality of work his reporters are producing.

Illinois News Network and Capitol News Illinois both have a presence at the Statehouse, but neither has received credentials, which are necessary if journalists want to report from the Senate or House floor. There’s been speculation that both were denied credentials because of their attachment to lobbying groups, but House spokesman Steven Brown said the answer is much more complicated. Patterson simply said neither organization met the Senate press credential guidelines.

However, that hasn’t stopped either organization from sending reporters to attend committees, where all the decisions about the construction of a bill are made, and reporters from both organizations are able to watch the floor debates from the public gallery. And they aren’t the only organizations that are providing Statehouse coverage without press credentials.  

One Illinois, a web-based platform that offers free content, turned to Kickstarter to get the service running in 2018. The group exceeded its initial goal of $10,000 by raising $10,895 and Cox said the nonprofit organization continues to exist because of donations from individuals and groups.

Ameya Pawar, a former two-term progressive Chicago alderman, is the president of One Illinois, according to the organization’s webpage.

Ted Cox, editor of One Illinois, said he contacted the former alderman after his former employer, hyper-local and online newspaper DNAInfo, was closed after workers tried to unionize.

Cox said he called Pawar after the closing of DNAInfo and learned about Pawar’s idea to keep the people of Illinois informed about the great people and communities in the state.

“Early on, we took a bunch of trips around the state and did some travelogue pieces,” Cox said. “I think there are a lot of places across Illinois where their news is not being covered.”

One Illinois is a smaller operation than Illinois News Network or Capitol News Illinois, with Cox, a videographer and a podcaster making up the staff. Its content is available online, though Cox said some of the group’s content is used for a Politico newsletter.

Cox said he rarely gets down to Springfield from Chicago, but reports what’s going on in the General Assembly by watching floor debates and other happenings that are live on Blueroom Stream, a subscription-based service that allows anyone to watch legislators in action.

Cox isn’t shy about One Illinois being, as he describes it, a little left-leaning. After all, he said, the service was created to counter heavily slanted stories being produced by Dan Proft and his chain of free print papers, Illinois Policy Institute and Breitbart News Network. But, he said, while he may feel strongly about supporting working families and a progressive income tax, his top priority is delivering news to his readers.

“I think these are positions we stand by, but we want to cover the news, first and foremost,” Cox said.  


Can they survive?

Regardless of the good intentions, how to keep funding the newly created Illinois news services is a question those involved with each project will have to answer. Illinois News Network, One Illinois and Capitol News Illinois are all providing free content, meaning they must depend on grants or donations to continue their work. Some traditional print publications are moving away from relying exclusively on advertisers or subscribers to support the bottom line and also turning to donations from both readers and corporations to make the numbers work. Committed news advocates have found new ways to support the industry and, in effect, support the dissemination of information.

Knowing how elected officials will “cut corners” and “do shady things” when no one is looking, as Wheeler said, makes the need for state government reporting of utmost importance. That is especially true in Illinois, which political analyst Dick Simpson ranked third in the nation in political corruption.

“I’m proud of the work journalists do out there because they’re trying their damnedest,” said Rogers.  

Lindsey Salvatelli is an editorial intern with Illinois Times as part of the Public Affairs Reporting master’s degree program at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact her at
intern@illinoistimes.com.

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